Nosipho Mngoma may not understand the origins of umemulo, but she is grateful to receive the gift of recognition.
Durban - Oral tradition has always formed an integral part of many cultures. Stories and information passed down from generation to generation preserve the heritage of a people.
But like the proverbial broken telephone, information passed down orally is susceptible to misinterpretation and distortion.
What happens when this finds its way into practice? Does it render whatever is being done according to that distorted or misinterpreted information null and void?
Two years ago, I had umemulo. This is a traditional Zulu ceremony performed by a girl’s parents to thank her for her good behaviour and to show she is of marriageable age. Some associate it with umhlonyana, a ceremony performed after a girl’s first menstruation and to show that she has blossomed.
My ceremony was done when I was 29 years old, a good decade and some years after I reached menarche and long after I had “blossomed”.
I am proud to be Zulu and take any opportunity to celebrate this heritage, but I never had umhlonyana or thought my parents would have umemulo for me. This is because my family are not staunch traditionalists. I don’t know whether it is because of the hegemony of westernisation and Christianity, or the complacency of modernity, where there is no place for what is perceived by some to be archaic beliefs.
Perhaps it is because, like many African traditional ceremonies, practices and rituals, umemulo is seen by some as a backward, outdated practice, having no bearing on the future.
I had no expectations for umemulo. I guess because it meant more money out of my parents’ pockets, whose care for me and educating me was thanks enough. Also, although I am what many would describe as a “bubbly” person, anyone who knows me well knows that I am not one to bubble over with excitement at the thought of being centre stage. For this reason, I did not have a 21st birthday or a graduation party, fearing the glare of eyes on me as “Miss Party”.
Coincidentally, these two occasions are often celebrated in conjunction with umemulo. They have the same intent: parents celebrating their child reaching 21 and giving them the symbolic “key to life” for not having fallen pregnant and for being respectful. Also for them graduating, meaning they are independent and a career woman.
Some also believe umemulo must be performed before a girl gets married.
With these milestones in my life having come and gone without much fanfare, and there being no suitor knocking on my dad’s door with cows for lobola in tow, I thought the memulo ship had sailed for me.
But for some reason, my little sister, Thula, 24, was open to the idea and as it was deserved, my parents obliged her hints.
Unfortunately for her, I was inkosazana – the first born daughter – so she could not have the ceremony unless one was performed for me first. The solution, a joint memulo, which is not uncommon.
I may have had the ceremony by default, but once it was decided, I was like a kid in a candy store. I could shop! And there is no better place than the Victoria Street Market for ubuhlalu (beads) worn on my ankles, neck, head and wrists and over the isidwaba, a pleated skirt made of cowhide.
Most importantly, it was a chance to have my entire family together and, of course, the money people would pin on my head was most welcome.
I did not mind that no one could explain the origins of giving money to a girl during her memulo. Why it was pinned on the head or the umbrellas we carried. And why the umbrellas?
My maternal family bought us blankets, with sweets, handkerchiefs and new clothes pinned on them.
This is after we went to fetch the spears we would use to poke into the ground in front of people at the ceremony, to indicate that we were asking them to pin money. What is the origin of doing this? There were plenty of people who told us why, but each was different.
Neither could anyone tell us why we had to be secluded for a week before the ceremony.
During this time we were to stay in the room with girls our age, but because of everyone’s schedules, we did this for only three days preceding the ceremony and even then, only when the hectic timetable allowed.
When our two cows arrived for example, mine was slaughtered in my absence as I had gone to get braids done, after a hair disaster the previous day.
The seclusion was meant to keep us away from contact with anyone wishing us ill will and to get closer to the ancestors. Did I contract ill will while at the salon? Who exactly are my ancestors: is it my two late brothers? Are they still my ancestors if our church does not believe in ancestors?
Over the beads my sister and I had especially made, we had to wear umhlwehlwe, a piece of fatty tissue from the slaughtered cows, over our shoulders. Elder women were also supposed to come in and teach us the ways of womanhood. My maternal grandmother assumed the role of guiding us through the ceremony, she and everyone else.
Everyone knew something about the “how to” on everything regarding the ceremony, even the girls from the traditional dance troupe we had hired to dance and sing with us in an esigcawini, an open area where ceremonies are held.
They took the liberty of pointing out things we “were not doing according to custom”. We did not wash off ibomvu, a red clay smeared on our faces in a river as required.
By heeding all the different advice, did we misinterpret some aspects of umemulo? Did we distort the practice? Does this in turn mean the purpose of the ceremony was not fulfilled? Am I not of age or marriageable age, have I not blossomed? Have our parents not thanked us?
Before the world tells me our memulo was done wrong and risk a barrage of criticism like that meted on television personality Minnie Dlamini after her ceremony in January, I’d like to issue a disclaimer.
I believe culture is adaptable; unfortunately this also means it’s distortable. Look at what has become of lobola – a custom meant to build relations between families, has turned into a commercial transaction.
I am all for keeping traditional practices authentic, doing things properly and by the book, but what if that “book” is word of mouth? Subject to change according to each person who shares it?
My sister and I are grateful to our parents, Dudu and Sipho, for umemulo, and received it as a gift in recognition of our good behaviour.
Someday, when the time comes for us to perform the ceremony for our own daughters, we will turn to the elders and seek their wisdom in the oral tradition of Zulu culture.
And it won’t matter how broken the “telephone” may seem to others, we will have lived our heritage, and no one can take that away from us.
* Nosipho Mngoma is a reporter for the Daily News.